SILENT VALLEY - Malla Nunn
The Emmanuel Cooper books by Malla Nunn, set in 1950's South Africa, are another excellent series in what is luckily now becoming a bigger range of crime fiction set in various parts of Africa. SILENT VALLEY (aka BLESSED ARE THE DEAD) is the third book now, centred around Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper, a policeman with plenty of demons from his past. Knowing that his past is closely intertwined with a society based on Apartheid will help the reader understand some of the difficulties that Cooper faces, just as understanding the intrinsic brutality of that system will give his struggle context.
Not that these books over-bake the personal situations, but the death of seventeen-year-old Amahle, daughter of a Zulu chief, in a society fraught with complications, inevitably takes everyone into the personal. Especially as there is no obvious motive for the death of a girl who, on the face of it, was destined for traditional marriage and life. There's a clever balancing act going on in this book - whilst the death of Amahle remains the central focus of Cooper and his investigation, the reader is also provided with a very personal and telling look into the nature of Apartheid. There is an extra element to that - not just the tension between black and white; but also the tension between the White Boer settlers and the later English arrivals.
In the middle of what is basically a whole heap of mistrust and dislike, there's some very well written individual characterisations and some touching partnerships. Cooper and his colleague, Zulu Constable Shabalala share a respect and understanding which is obviously outside the boundaries of racial acceptability, to say nothing of police procedure and hierarchy. In much the same way Cooper is able to reach out to the young British son of a local farmer, regarded as wild and not a little odd, Cooper and Gabriel connect - perhaps their mutual difference being part of what makes them work together. Really, that concept of difference being a connecting point weaves it's way through the entire narrative with so many of the characters prepared, often seemingly required, to be different, to survive in a society which most definitely does not approve.
What's particularly interesting is the way that this series is progressing. The first two books - A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE, and LET THE DEAD LIE - introduced Cooper, established the brutality of the world in which he lives, and set about creating a character who is real, conflicted and complex; somebody who is profoundly affected by the events that happen around him.
SILENT VALLEY takes another step forward again, building in a stronger sense of place and the different groups within the society. The inclusion of a strong Zulu cultural, societal and family environment into this book adds an extra layer to the ongoing storyline, and to reader's understanding of the complications of 1950's South Africa that was moving and instructive.
Part of what is really working in this series is the progression, and the way that the characters and the sense of place is building. SILENT VALLEY could work on some level as a standalone, but there will be a greater understanding of the characters and the place if you can read the series in order. If you've not caught up with any of Malla Nunn's Emmanuel Cooper books - now is as good a time as any.
A remote town. A girl of rare and exquisite beauty. A murder that silences a whole community.
The body of a seventeen-year-old girl has been found covered in wildflowers on a hillside in the Drakensberg Mountains, near Durban. She is the daughter of a Zulu chief, destined to fetch a high bride price. Was Amahle as innocent as her family claims, or is her murder a sign that she lived a secret life?
Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is sent to investigate. He must enter the guarded worlds of a traditional Zulu clan and a white farming community to gather up the clues Amahle left behind and bring her murderer to justice. But the silence in the valley is deafening, and it seems that everyone – from the uncooperative local police officer, to the white farm boy who seems obsessed with the dead girl – has something to hide.
With no cause of death and no motive, Cooper's investigation is blocked at each turn. Can he tough it out, or will the small-town politics that stir up his feelings about the past be more than he can bear?
In this page-turning tale of murder and mystery, Nunn entangles us in a rich and complex web of witchcraft, tribalism, taboo relationships... and plain old-fashioned greed.